About the author: Kevin Erdmann is a visiting research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and author of Shut Out: How A Housing Shortage Caused the Great Recession and Crippled Our Economy.
There are many reports of homebuyers getting into bidding wars and many cities where home prices have appreciated by well more than 10% over the past year. This naturally leads to a concern about market volatility: Must what goes up come down? Are we repeating the excesses of the early 2000s, when housing prices surged before the market crashed?
Some analysts argue that this time, it’s even less likely that prices will fall. Inventories of new homes for sale are very low, and lending standards are much tighter than in 2005. This is true. In fact, the ground is even firmer than it seems.
New home inventories were very high before the Great Recession. Today, they are closer to the level that has been common for decades. The portion of inventory built and ready for move-in is especially low because of supply chain interruptions combined with a sudden boost of demand during the coronavirus pandemic. We shouldn’t worry much about a crash when buyers are eagerly snapping up the available homes.
Yet there’s another reason to believe a housing crash is unlikely: Even the high level of inventory in 2005 wasn’t nearly as speculative as most people think. Understanding why will help us interpret today’s market.
In 2005, homes were being built because sales were high, and sales were high in parts of the country where demand was strong. Builders were conservatively scaling their inventories with rising sales. The same is true today.
Frequently, analysts cite the sharp rise in months of inventory—the number of months it will take to sell the current supply of homes being constructed for sale, at the current sales rate—as evidence of overzealous building during the last boom. But timing is key here. Decades of experience tell a clear story: Months of inventory is mostly a function of sales rather than builder speculation. When sales are strong, homes are turning over, and months of inventory tend to stay low. When sales quickly decline, builders tend to be left with unexpectedly high inventory.
From the late 1990s all the way up to the peak of new home sales in mid-2005, inventory was at historic lows, with about four months’ worth remaining. Of course, builders were creating more inventory to match growing sales, but it was barely enough to keep up with demand, so the number held fairly constant. Then, as economic growth started to slow, a deep drop in sales coincided with a sharp rise in months of inventory.
Today, there are also about four months of inventory, and sales are around the same level as they were in the late 1990s. So, while it’s easy to look at on-the-ground activity and conclude that low inventory could cause bidding wars among buyers, we need to remember that buyers are really driving inventory more than the other way around. In other words, builders decide to create new homes when demand is high from buyers. If demand suddenly dries up, builders can’t suddenly make the inventory of homes under construction disappear.
Demand for new homes is something over which federal policymakers actually have some control. The Federal Reserve and other federal regulators should aim to avoid sharp declines in sales. The Fed can do this by raising or lowering interest rates, changing the money supply, and targeting changes in prices and nominal economic activity. Federal regulators can make sure that stable lending conditions are maintained, or not. One reason the Great Recession was so bad was that Federal Reserve officials and other federal regulators, generally responding to public sentiment, washed their hands of the horrendous collapse in sales and left homebuilders and sellers out to dry.
But even in that worst case scenario, the 2000s market was much more resilient than it seemed. In July 2005, when buyers backed off and inventory started to surge, the median U.S. home price was $198,000, according to Zillow. In July 2008, when inventory was near its peak, it was still at $199,000.
At the June 2006 Federal Reserve meeting,
said, “It is a good thing that housing is cooling. If we could wave a magic wand and reinstate 2005, we wouldn’t want to do that.” It’s notable that
who today holds Bernanke’s former position as Fed chair, isn’t openly pining for a “cooler” housing market.
There is a common belief that before the Great Recession, homebuyers were taken in by the myth that home prices never go down, and they became complacent. Those buyers turned out to be wrong. Yet, even when a concerted effort to kill housing markets succeeded, we had to beat them into submission for three full years before prices relented. Home prices can go down, but we have to work very hard, together, for a long time, to make them fall.
If you are a buyer in a hot market where home prices are 30% higher than they were a year ago, you’re getting a 30% worse deal than you could have had back then. Nothing can be done about that. That said, the main things to be concerned with are the factors federal policymakers are in control of. There is little reason to expect housing demand to collapse. If it does, it will require communal intention—federal monetary and credit policies meant to create or accept a sharp drop in demand. And even if federal officials intend for housing construction to collapse, history suggests that a market contraction would push new sales down deeply for an extended period of time before prices relent.
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